Drones, Guantanamo part of broad Obama counterterrorism speech

Drones, Guantanamo part of broad Obama counterterrorism speech

Drones, Guantanamo part of broad Obama counterterrorism speech

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by Stephanie Condon

CBS News

Posted on May 23, 2013 at 6:19 AM

(CBS) -- President Obama on Thursday will deliver a major speech on his counterterrorism policies, addressing everything from drone strikes and the status of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, to continuing efforts to fight al Qaeda and the legal framework for the continuing “war on terror.”

In the substantive speech to be delivered at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., Mr. Obama will announce plans to restart transfers of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to third countries. Before their transfer, the prisoners would have to be cleared for release, and the U.S. would have to be satisfied that an oversight and monitoring program is in place. The president will lift the prohibition on potential transfers to Yemen, but Congress may attempt to block this move.

Broadly speaking, Mr. Obama is delivering this speech because he “is very concerned about the need to put an architecture in place that governs counterterrorism policy for now and into the future,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday.

“The President will provide the American people with an update on how the threat of terrorism has changed substantially since 9/11, as Al Qaeda’s core in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been decimated, and new threats have emerged from al Qaeda affiliates, localized extremist groups, and homegrown terrorists,” added a White House official in a written statement.

“The President will discuss our comprehensive strategy to meet these threats, including waging the war against al Qaeda and our counter-terrorism efforts more broadly,” the official continued.

According to CBS News national security analyst Juan Zarate, “The threat from terrorism in 2013 -- al Qaeda-directed or otherwise—is different than what we faced in 2001 and needs to be grappled with directly. This implicates serious questions about targeted killings; long-term, preventative detention; and how we define the threat and the underlying ideology that has inspired al Qaeda’s adherents.”

By addressing these issues—even without making significant policy changes—Mr. Obama’s speech could have a significant impact across the globe, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

When it comes to U.S. detention and drone policies, O’Hanlon said, “The international perceptions are so wildly at odds with the basic facts, he could do some big damage limitation.”

For instance, O’Hanlon said, media reports on the hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay often overshadow the fact that the U.S. has made “huge progress” in reducing the prisoner population there down to 10 or 20 percent of its original size.

“Our American political debate obscures that fact because we’re so insistent on criticizing each other on partisan lines, by way of what we have or haven’t done,” he said. “The actual storyline is more positive.”

At the same time, O’Hanlon said that Mr. Obama must acknowledge in his speech that plans to restart transfers won’t apply to all of the remaining prisoners.

“There’s still going to be detainees left there, and he shouldn’t ignore their fate in his speech,” he said.

Some are hoping for bolder declarations from the president.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, professor of international law at the University of Notre Dame, told CBSNews.com that as U.S. combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan next year, it’s time for a complete change of course.

“The president really needs to bring an end to Guantanamo, to drone strikes, to military commissions by the time the U.S. is out of Afghanistan,” she said, or else risk creating the “bizarre situation where we’re out of Afghanistan and yet still carrying on these kind of wartime actions.”

Restarting transfers of Guantanamo prisoners to Yemen could be a “very significant” start, O’Connell said, given the Yemenis at the detention center represent the biggest group of cleared prisoners and that the move could bring an end to the hunger strike.

O’Connell also said that ideally, the president would announce the end of CIA involvement in drone strikes or the end of drone strikes outside of combat zones.

In a letter to congressional leaders sent Wednesday, the administration did acknowledge that the U.S. has killed four American citizens in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

O’Connell called that a good step, given that “the administration’s never formally acknowledged what is common knowledge.”

Still, she said, “If that’s all the president’s’ going to say tomorrow [on drone strikes], there are going to be a lot of disappointed people and groups around the world, especially Pakistan, where they’re expecting the president to say we’re going to end attacks in that country.”
 

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